How Couples Cope with Having Very Different Sex Drives

Different desired sexual frequency doesn't need to be a problem.

Posted Jun 18, 2019

Couples where both partners initiate sex about equally tend to be happier than those couples where one partner does most of the initiating. Those couples where it was always one partner tended to be the least happy—not just in their sex life, but in their relationship overall. So it’s important to address these initiation imbalances if they are casting a long shadow on other parts of your sex life or relationship.

Couples can wind up in these problematic imbalances in a number of ways. Most simplistically, it could be that the two romantic partners have very different desired sexual frequencies, and they haven’t found a way to resolve it so they are both satisfied. The bigger the desire discrepancy, the harder it is to come up with a mutually satisfying solution. This is especially true when it has been a longstanding difference, rather than a temporary or transient situation (e.g., due to a stretch of work stress or the birth of a baby).

Copyright 123RF.
Source: Copyright 123RF.

But it’s not as simple as just a biologically determined sex drive. One’s desire to have sex with a regular partner is also affected by the quality of that sex. People who are too often disappointed by their partner will likely become much less interested in taking them up on the next offer. So, low interest in sex may also reflect issues that need to be addressed in the couple’s sex life. But even if the sex is great from a technique perspective, there may also be relationship problems that are killing one partner’s sex drive—for their partner, that is. Or maybe one partner’s sex drive is more vulnerable to general stress or fatigue and tends to disappear even if the relationship is otherwise good. As is often the case when it comes to relationships and sex, problems in one area may reflect problems in other areas—and the couples who are happy are likely doing a number of things well, individually and as a couple.

Let’s look at how to balance out some of that initiating or at least reduce the negative effects of imbalances.

What’s the History?

If you’re in a relationship where one of you does a lot more initiating of sex than the other, it may be worth starting by looking backward. Has this always been the case, or has it changed over time? If it changed, what caused that change—and is there anything either of you can do to tilt that back the other way? And is the problem just in the initiation, but once the sex begins, everything goes well? Some people tend to feel spontaneous sexual desire less often, but are eager participants once things get rolling. They just need things to get going a bit to spark their desire. If the lower initiating partner is generally less interested in sex even once things do get going, then you probably need to look deeper—check out "Boosting Low Sexual Desire" for more on that.

It’s probably also worth looking at each partner’s motivations. What is the higher initiator looking for—and why is it so important to them? And what is holding the lower initiator back from initiating more? It’s easy for disagreements to stall out on the surface level: more sex versus less sex. But why does it matter? For example, the higher desire partner may be looking for more attention from and connection with their partner or perhaps the stress relief of temporarily escaping all the demands of daily life. Or perhaps they fear that their partner is pulling away, and they are hoping the sex will draw them back. The lower desire partner may feel like they already have too many demands on them, either in general or from their partner, and don’t have the mental bandwidth to be generous in this way.

Avoid the Chase Dynamic

When one partner wants something much more than the other partner does, it’s easy to fall into a chase dynamic where the higher desire partner often tries to get things going and the lower desire partner often feels like they need to put on the brakes. This can happen with sex, but also with anything else where partners have different desired frequencies, like going out to eat. If there isn’t too much difference in the couple’s desired frequency, then it’s probably no big deal. Where things get challenging is when the frustrated higher desire partner feels like they are “always” getting shot down, and the beleaguered lower desire partner feels like they are “always” being hounded. This can then ironically make sex even less likely to occur, so it goes from bad to worse.

The solution is to have some really honest conversations about what you each would like your sex life to look like. Preferably this conversation is had in the living room, fully dressed, not in bed after someone got shot down. The goal is to get to a point where the one who tends to initiate more feels like they can read their partner’s level of interest well and like they have a decent shot at getting a yes. Meanwhile, the lower desire partner needs to feel like they can say no without worrying too much about their partner’s reaction. This way, when they say yes, it’s because they actually do want to have sex—even though the higher desire partner wants more sex, what they really want is sex with a partner who also wants to have sex. Grudging sex isn’t very fun. So what needs to change in the relationship, sex life, or individual partners’ lives to make the lower desire partner actually want more sex? This may involve some deep thinking and some hard conversations, especially if there are some topics that are being avoided.

Copyright 123RF.
Source: Copyright 123RF.

It’s probably also worth some conversation about what the higher desire partner can expect for a plan B if the lower desire partner isn’t interested. Or at least isn’t interested in the full production. Are there other things that the couple can do together that the higher partner can enjoy? How about lending a hand? Or maybe just lying there together (clothes on or off) while the higher desire partner takes care of themselves? And if the lower desire partner doesn’t want to be involved at all, then is it OK for the higher desire partner to take care of themselves? For some couples, it isn’t. Unfortunately, if masturbation isn’t an option, then that will make for a lot more pressure on the lower desire partner and/or a lot more frustration for the higher desire partner.

Work Together

In great sex lives, as in great relationships, both partners take an active role in ensuring that both partners are happy. This may involve being willing to initiate, as well as being willing to be flexible if you don’t get a full yes. This also involves being willing to be generous sometimes and willing to take a pass at other times. Sex is easy to disagree about, but can be a great source of connection and pleasure if you can find a way to agree with each other more.

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